By David H. Massie
Sperryville resident Cliff Miller, a fifth-generation farmer, was awarded the Rappahannock River Basin Award, presented by the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District and Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation in May, for his work as a good steward of his land on Mount Vernon Farm.
Mount Vernon Farm has been a working family farm since 1827, and is comprised of 830 acres. Currently, the farm consists of 230 acres of pasture land, 25 acres of organic vegetables and 385 acres of managed forest. Miller, the farm’s owner, is striving to diversify the farm’s production capabilities, while maintaining and improving the quality of the terrestrial and aquatic habitats.
Mount Vernon raises grass-fed beef, lamb, pork and chickens. All of the animals on the farm are raised without growth hormones, vaccines or antibiotics. Through Miller’s participation in the CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) and BMP (Best Management Practices) programs, he was been able to set up a rotational grazing system that has allowed him to make the switch to a more natural way of farming.
Miller’s method of using multiple species to “promote the health of the land” has proven effective, allowing multiple species to supply nutrients and control pests in the fields as they are moved to new pastures. Clover is broadcast into the pasture fields every other year to increase nitrogen in the soil for other species of plants to use. Mount Vernon uses no commercial fertilizer on their fields.
Through the CREP programs, more than 10 miles of new fencing has been installed, which allows for an extensive rotational grazing system. Along with the fencing, several wells and spring developments were installed that feed 12 watering troughs. In total, the farm has over 135 acres in CREP programs. Since the farm has complete stream exclusion, Miller has set up a small catch-and-release fly-fishing operation that has proven to be an active profit center for the farm.
Miller’s dedication to conservation is evident throughout the farm. Water quality is protected through the installation of stream fencing and numerous watering sources. He has worked with the CREP program to plant 136,350 trees (across 135 acres) in the farm’s riparian buffers. Miller applies nutrients to the land in accordance with soil test recommendations.
The majority of the meat that is processed locally is sold on the farm in their store, though Miller also caters to about a dozen buyers’ clubs, as well as restaurants in Richmond, Charlottesville and Washington, D.C. Even the Inn at Little Washington has begun buying some of the farm’s pastured pork. Despite the troubled economic times, Miller said that sales were up 20-percent over the last year through September 2012.
Miller has been recognized by many organizations over the years, including having his farm declared a Virginia Century Farm award by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. It’s one of three such farms in Rappahannock County that have been farmed continuously by the same family for over 100 years.
Mount Vernon Farm received the Bay Friendly/Clean Water Farm Award for Rappahannock County in 2001. The Virginia Forage and Grassland Council awarded him the 2006 Outstanding Forage Producer for the State of Virginia, while CSWCD gave him the “Conservationist of the Year” Award in 2009, an annual honor that given to a farm operation or person who does exceptional conservation work.
Besides being an active conservationist, Miller is also a major supporter of local foods and making opportunities to bring along the next generation of young, ecologically friendly farmers. Waterpenny Farm, formed in 2000, is an organic vegetable farm located on 30 acres of Mount Vernon Farm land that Sperryville residents Rachel Bynum and Eric Plaksin are leasing from Miller. Since beginning the lease, the couple has been able to set up a successful community-supported agriculture program.
Miller has shown his commitment to sound agricultural practices at the local level and continues to be an example to other farmers in Rappahannock, as well as the broader agricultural community, that farming and conservation can work together to make our environment a better place.
David H. Massie is a conservation specialist with the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District.